IATEFL 2016 Plenary. Scott Thornbury: The Entertainer


So, without more ado, ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands most forcefully together and give it up for the one, the only, the inimitable, the ever-so wonderful ……………… Scott Thornbury!!

And on he walks.

He looks good; he looks fit, well turned out, up for it. Rather than hide behind the lectern and read from a script, he roams the whole expanse of the colossal stage with practised ease, expertly addressing different sections of the huge auditorium , bringing everybody into the warm glow. He starts brilliantly. He puts the years of important signposts of his life on the screen:

  • 1950
  • 1975
  • 1997
  • 2004

and asks for suggestions as to what happened to him in those years.

“Uh oh! There’s “an element” in here today”, he says in response to a group on the right of the hall that’s having fun calling out the wrong answers to his elicitations.

His voice is warm, fruity, well-modulated, and it comes across perfectly, helped by a good PA system and by the fact that the enormous hall is packed with people. Of the IATEFL conference talks I saw on line, there was something near gender equality as far as quality of presentation is concerned, but nobody else reached Scott’s standard. John Faneslow used to be able to put him in the shade, and Michael Hoey on a good day came close, but these days, Scott’s unrivalled: he’s The Entertainer.

And it’s not just the way he performs of course – the best stand up artist depends on his or her material, right? Scott’s plenary had some very good material, and, what’s more, the content was both coherent and cohesive. Scott led us through 50 years of ELT history pointing out that really there’s nothing new under the sun; that we made lots of mistakes, that some “methods” look really weird today, while others that we think of as new were already there in the 60s, and so on.

Having arrived in his history of ELT at 1975, Scott highlighted the publication of the Strategies series of courseboooks, which he describes as “revolutionary”, since they were the first pedagogical material to be based not on grammatical structures but rather, on functions; and the first to be based not on what the language is, but rather on what you do with it.  At this point in the history, Scott came to the main part of his argument.

Two Kinds of Discourse

He suggests that two “intertwining but not interconnecting” discourses can be detected. On the one hand, there’s the “old view” that informs the various methodologies associated with grammar-based teaching. On the other, there’s the “new discourse”, which comes from a functional approach to language  and a more sociolinguistic view of language learning

In the figure below, the “old” view is on the left, and the “new” view is on right. From the top, the categories are:

  • the nature of language
  • units of language acquisition
  • the nature of learning
  • learning path
  • goals.


Scott suggests that the “Strategies” series of coursebooks resolves the argument between these 2 views in favour of the view on the right. Obviously, Scott likes the “new” view, so he was excited when the Strategies series was published – he felt he was at the dawn of a new age of ELT. But, Scott goes on to say, the matter wasn’t in fact resolved: current ELT practice has reverted to reflect the old view. Today, a grammar-based syllabus is used extensively in the global ELT industry.

So, what happened? Why didn’t things change? Why did the old discourse win out? A particularly important question is: Why does the grammar-based syllabus still reign despite clear findings from SLA research? Scott pointed out that SLA research suggests that teachers can’t affect the route of L2 development in any significant way: the inbuilt syllabus triumphs. Grammatical syllabuses fly in the face of the results of SLA research.

Scott showed results from a survey he did of more than 1,000 teachers, which showed that most teachers say they use a grammar based syllabus because students want it. In a way, they blame the students for an approach they say they’re not entirely happy with.

Despairing of finding a solution inside the ELT world, Scott thought maybe he should look at general education. But, when he took a look, he discovered that things in general education are “terrible”. Everywhere knowledge is being broken down into tiny little bits which can then be tested.  He comments: “There’s something really unhealthy in main stream education and it’s exacerbated by a discourse that’s all about McNuggets again.”

Scott then quoted Lin (2013)

“Language teaching is increasingly prepackaged and delivered as if it were a standardised, marketable product…”

“This commodifying ideology of language teaching and learning has gradually penetrated into school practices, turning teachers into ‘service providers’.”

So what’s the solution, then? Determined not to end on such a pessimistic note, Scott suggested three endings:

  1. The pragmatic route
  2. The dogmatic route
  3. The dialectic route

The Pragmatic Route says: Accept things the way they are and get on with it.

The Dogmatic (or Dogmetic!) Route says: Get rid of the coursebook, use communicative activities, and shape the language which emerges from genuine attempts at communication. Unfortunately, Scott said, this will never be really popular; at most it will be a footnote in Richards and Rogers. A more extreme route says get rid of the teacher. This isn’t an entirely silly suggestion, but again, it’s unlikely to be widely adopted.

The dialectic route tries, as in the Hegelian model, to overcome the limitations of the thesis and its antithesis by meshing the best from both. Here Scott gave two examples:

  • Language in The Wild. Used in Scandinavia. Students do classes but they’re sent out into the real world to do things like shopping.
  • The Hands Up Project.  Children who can’t get out of the classroom, such as children trapped in Gaza, are taught English by using technology to drive a communicative language learning approach.

The video of Nick in the UK interacting with some lovely kids in Gaza made a very uplifting ending to the talk.


I have two criticisms of Scott’s argument, one minor, one more important:

  1. The presentation of the two “intertwining but not interconnecting discourses” doesn’t do a good job of summarising differences between grammar-based ELT and a version of communicative language teaching that emphases interaction, student-centred learning, task-based activities, locally-produced materials, and communication for meaningful purposes.
  2. Scott’s framing of and solution to the problem of the grammar based syllabus is a cop out.

As to the first problem, Scott’s summary of the old and new, intertwined but not interconnected discourses has its limitations. The first three categories are not well-labelled, in my opinion. Language is not cognitive or social: the differences between grammatical and functional descriptions of language, or between cognitive and sociolinguistic approaches to SLA, are hardly well captured in this diagram.

Then, what are “units of acquisition”? How does the contrast between grammar Mcnuggets and communicative routines explain different conceptualisations of these “units”? What does “the nature of learning” refer to? What do “atomistic” and “holistic” mean here?  And while the fourth and fifth labels are clear enough, they’re false dichotomies; grammar-based teaching was and is concerned with promoting fluency, and communicative competence.

I think it would have been better to have used a framework like Breen’s (1984) to compare and contrast the syllabus types under scrutiny, asking of each one

  1. What knowledge does it focus on and prioritise?
  2. What capabilities does it focus on and prioritise?
  3. On what basis does it divide and sub-divide what is to be learned?
  4. How does it sequence what is to be learned?
  5. What is its rationale?

That way Scott could have looked at a grammar-based, or structural syllabus, a functional syllabus, like the one effectuated in Strategies, and a CLT syllabus as enacted in Dogme. That way, he could have dealt with the serious limitations of the Strategies approach and he could have dealt properly with his own approach. Which brings me to the more important criticism.

Face The Problem

The problem ELT faces is not “How do we resolve the tensions between two different discourses?”; rather it’s the problem which Scott clearly stated and then adroitly side-stepped on his way to a typically more anodyne, less controversial, resolution. The real problem is:

How can we combat the commodifying ideology of language teaching and learning which has turned teachers into ‘service providers’ who use coursebooks to deliver language instruction as if it were a standardised, marketable product?  

And the solution, of course, is radical change.

Decentralise. Organise teaching locally. Get rid of the coursebook. Reform the big testing authorities. Reform CELTA. Etc., etc..

Why did Scott side-step all these issues? Why, having clearly endorsed the findings of SLA research which show up the futility of a grammar based syllabus, and having shown how “really unhealthy” current ELT practice is, did Scott not argue the case for Dogme, or for Long’s version of TBLT, or for a learner-centred approach? Why did he not argue for reform of the current tests that dominate ELT, or of CELTA ?  Why did Scott dismiss his own approach, Dogme, as deserving no more than a footnote in Richards and Rogers, instead of promoting it as a viable alternative to the syllabus type that he so roundly, and rightly criticised?

Maybe, as he said, it was the end of the conference and he didn’t want to be gloomy. Or maybe it’s because he’s The Entertainer and that part of him got the better of the critical thinker and the reformer in him. If so, it’s a darn shame, however much fun it was to watch the performance.


Breen, M.P. (1984) Process syllabuses for the language classroom. In C.J.Brumfit (Ed.).  General English Syllabus Design. ELT Documents No. 118. London: Pergamon Press & The British Council. 47-60.

Lin, A. 2013. Toward paradigmatic change in TESOL methodologies: building plurilingual pedagogies from the ground up, TESOL Quarterly, 47/3.

10 thoughts on “IATEFL 2016 Plenary. Scott Thornbury: The Entertainer

  1. Thanks for a clear, blow-by-blow account of the presentation. The problems were all laid out in the presentation with evidence to support a radical change– so where do we go now?

    There is a related discussion going on on Anthony Gaughain’s blog (http://teachertrainingunplugged.com/a-critique-of-hugh-dellar-on-celta/#comment-1294) to which I contributed the following post:

    Yes, thanks for a well-considered post and for opening up the discussion. Did you happen to complete the recent survey sent out by Cambridge, the one eliciting ideas for changing the course? Could something be afoot?

    While assessing a recent CELTA course, and in my meeting with them, one of the trainees asked a question pointing to this idea that CELTA lacks breadth in preparing teachers for different contexts. She suggested that the course be more focused on Academic English. Now, though academic skills are undoubtably important, preparing teachers to teach EAP, ESP etc are goals outside the remit of a celta course, and, if we go back to the origins of the course, it was created very specifically to prepare teachers to teach EFL in private langauge school contexts.

    This makes me wonder if the centres are not making this clear in their selection processes? Should they be more explicit when they are screening candidates and when they are clarifying the goals of celta? To be fair, there is a requirment that an intro to Literacy be included in the timetable, but this may be an anitquated provision which needs to be revised, as it was likely included to deal with specific types of leaners coming to the UK at the time the course documents were created.

    Looing at skills on the course, the basic management skills that you learn on a celta are, IMHO, transferable to any context where you have to manage groups and process information (setting clear tasks, giving clear instructions, techniques for grouping are some that spring to mind). But nowhere, to my knowledge at least, is it stated that the course will prepare you to teach in any context.

    To shift direction slightly, I do think that the critism above of Hugh Dellar missed the opportunity to make more of, what I see as a cognitive dissonance in our field. Most committed teachers, those engaged in CPD, when asked will agree that the grammar syllabus is unprincipled and not supported by current research on how langauges are learned (See the results of Thonbury’s survey). However, the CELTA timetables of most centres that i inspect, the language schools that I have worked at, the course books that I use, almost without exception dovetail with an understanding of langauge as learned as the mastery of discrete items that follow a linear sequence. All these industries serve to perpetuate the hegemony and the dominant narrative of the field and if we wish to change it we need to look very closely at how these domains are interrelated, to challenge the assumptions that support their practices. What say you?


  2. I wasn’t too keen on Scott’s conciliatory ending but I am not sure I like yours either.

    I find it unrealistic.

    Its basic assumption is that of a well trained and well paid teacher who actually has the time and the technology available to search, scan, print, reproduce, mix n’ match, do needs analysis, formative assessment, select appropriate material, do excellent materials design, in short a very small percentage of the teaching population.

    I am not saying we should abandon hope but there are many teachers who lack the basic will to live they are paid so shabbily and treated even worse…


  3. My ending was this:

    The problem is: How can we combat the commodifying ideology of language teaching and learning which has turned teachers into ‘service providers’ who use coursebooks to deliver language instruction as if it were a standardised, marketable product?

    And the solution, of course, is radical change. Decentralise. Organise teaching locally. Get rid of the coursebook. Reform the big testing authorities. Reform CELTA. Etc., etc..

    You’re wrong to say that its basic assumption is that ELT teachers are well trained and well paid, and that they have the time and the technology available to search, scan, print, reproduce, mix n’ match, do needs analysis, formative assessment, select appropriate material, do excellent materials design. It makes no such assumptions: how could it? Do you think I know nothing about the poor conditions and pay of most language teachers?

    You might think that radical change is unlikely, it might strike you as “utopian” or whatever, but not all of us are so gloomy. There are some who think that radical change is not just absolutely necessary but possible. We think radical change starts by drawing attention to the way the ELT industry is currently run and to who benefits from this state of affairs. We think it continues by exploring alternatives. We push for local organisation of teachers and we suggest alternatives to centralised coursebook-driven teaching.

    Your remarks don’t help one little bit. You exaggerate what’s needed in order to start moving away from coursebook-driven teaching towards a more humanistic, rational, research-informed, learner-centred, locally-relevant, cooperative model of ELT; and you give no support to all those who are working in various ways to change things. Thanks very much for your opinion.


    1. Regarding decentralising teaching, surely those who are driven by profit or do favour marketing the coursebook are going to be a major obstacle whether or not the system is decentralised?

      In that case, the problem I envisage isn’t that lots of teachers can’t get on board with it, but that certain people would force a commercial, industry-esque system on their staff whether or not the system was decentralised.

      I suppose, then, that the problem isn’t the centralisation of EFL, per se, but the state of its centre.


  4. Hi Geoff

    Many years ago I lived in Greece and made strenuous efforts to learn Greek. In this I was helped by many of my Greek friends, who were more than happy to answer my questions about their language and indeed seemed delighted that I showed so much interest. They did, among other things, a good deal of very helpful recasting. It did not occur to any of them to ask me for payment. My question is this; so long as we, as language teachers, require payment for doing what my Greek friends happily did for free, how can we be anything other than ‘service providers’ and the service we offer anything other than a ‘commodity’?


  5. Hi Geoff, on the issue of whether what you advocate is possible, we certainly agree that it is and is already happening. The right combination of teachers and other professionals working together CAN achieve, and are achieving, at least the first three parts of your “Decentralise. Organise teaching locally. Get rid of the coursebook. Reform the big testing authorities. Reform CELTA. Etc., etc..” The last two bits (apart from the “etcs”) are far more problematic, and one might ask the question of why, if you want to decentralise, you’d also want to reform organisations that are precisely centrist/centralising? Are we dealing here with the classic anarchist/communist antagonism – to work in spite of the state in order to abolish it, or to take over and transform the state? Or would “reform” mean something different?

    My second point, and this in the very local context of the co-op we set up in Barcelona, is that once you have taken steps to do the first three things, which are an attempt to work against the commodification of English language teaching, it is very difficult to avoid then still being caught up in commodification. You commodify what you do in order to compete with those very organisations and private institutions who commodify ELT … in order to work with individuals and companies who are also in the business of commodification … and for whom our classes might add a competitive edge over others playing the same game.

    We also work with the public sector, with social enterprises and other organisations for whom profit is not the principal driving force, and the aim is to expand that and make it work for us so that. as teachers, we can be paid what we feel we deserve without needing to accept every in-company contract we get a stab at. But these social objectives need to be built in to the very fabric of any teacher-organised movement – they are not guaranteed outcomes.

    I’m also of a mind that if anyone is going to work with profit-driven organisations to improve their English it might as well be groups of self-organising teachers doing things right, getting a just reward for doing so and reinvesting profits in teacher development – and the search for nobler causes.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Neil,

    1. You’re right – to be consistent I should call for an end to the big testing authorities and training programmes like CELTA. I was trying to be realistic, and in these 2 cases calling for reform is a strategic move; but it’s a dodgy argument.

    2. And you’re quite right to stress the difficulties of working “inside the system” as some put it. You can’t realistically boycott capitalism, and its modern form has developed very sophisticated ways of recuperating protest and revolt and selling it back to the one-time radical element – punk rock star millionaires for example. A cooperative outfit like yours has to make concessions and compromises, and you have to be constantly on guard so as not to let “success” ruin you.

    3. The distinction between the public and private sector is a murky one; there are lots of very dubious bits of the ELT business working in the public sector, especially since contracting out became the norm.

    4. Meanwhile, I think we have to continue to work with anybody who will pay us and treat us decently, and to promote the view of ELT as best done locally by groups of self-organising teachers.

    5. I can’t resist adding that we need to improve our understanding of language learning and our craft as language teachers. This involves studying, reading, sharing our experiences, and remaining highly critical of all those globe-trotting stars of ELT who sell teacher training packages and other varieties of snake oil.


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